Where do captive dolphins come from?

Contrary to the popular perception that all captive dolphins are born in captivity, many of those currently in captivity were once wild and free. While some water parks obtain dolphins legally, others find that obtaining the animals through proper channels takes more time and money than they are willing to invest. As a result, a thriving illegal trade in wild-caught dolphins has emerged in order to meet the demand. Wild animals acquired for a captive facility represent only a portion of those affected.

The capture process is extremely violent, potentially lethal, and inherently cruel. For every wild dolphin taken captive, at least one other is injured or killed during the capture process. Studies suggest that mortality rates increase six-fold after capture. Dolphins are chased to exhaustion by men in speedboats who separate a few dolphins from the rest of the group, corral them with a net and close off the bottom. In a panic, the dolphins often injure themselves when they ram the net in an attempt to escape. Injury and death (usually by drowning) are common. The captured dolphins may then be subjected to traumatic travel in boats, shallow pens on trucks, or between countries on long-haul flights.

The removal of dolphins can be detrimental to the overall population. In particular, the taking of young females, the preferred catch of swim-with-the-dolphin facilities, can affect the health of wild populations over the long term. In regions where very little is known about the status of populations, removing any specimens from the wild is a serious conservation concern because it poses a threat not only to the survival of local dolphins but because it also undermines international measures to protect dolphins.

Is there a difference between the tank that captive dolphins are kept in and their natural environment?

Dolphins are intelligent and social creatures that, in the wild, interact with hundreds of pod-mates, hunt communally, and have entire coastlines as their playground. In captivity, all of this is lost. Social partners are restricted to a handful of tank-mates. Captive dolphins are fed dead fish (wild dolphins only catch and eat live fish; they never eat dead fish) and they face a profound reduction in space and stimulation.

Dolphins in the wild may swim up to 40 or 50 miles in a day and can dive to depths of hundreds of feet. Even in the largest facilities, captive dolphins have access to less than 1/10,000 of 1% (0.000001) of the space available to them in their natural environment. Dolphins in captivity are often restricted to swimming in circles. In many dolphins, this behavior is a sign that the dolphin is suffering psychologically; it is engaging in what is known as a stereotypical behavior. For an inquisitive, intelligent creature like the dolphin, a barren tank offers no exploratory stimuli compared to the vast, complex ocean.

How can you tell when dolphins are happy?

The dolphin's toothy grin masks its suffering and contributes to the myth that dolphins in theme parks enjoy a happy life. In truth, dolphins cannot move their facial muscles to communicate inner feelings like humans can. Dolphins appear to smile even while injured or seriously ill. The smile is a feature of a dolphin's anatomy unrelated to its health or emotional state.

Dolphins' bodies are adapted to the aquatic environment. When dolphins beach themselves in the wild, they do so because they are sick, disoriented, injured or otherwise in some kind of distress. Many of the beached animals die from the resulting pressure and damage to their internal organs. A captive dolphin that lifts itself out of the water and onto a platform or stage has been trained to beach itself on command. The discomfort to the animal can be great and permanent injury is only avoided by the trainer recalling the animal to the water in time.

The behaviors you encounter in a captive facility are not normal wild dolphin behavior. To watch really happy dolphins who are enjoying what they are doing, watch them in the wild in their natural habitat.

Do dolphins have to perform all the time or do they take days off? Do they mind the loud music and loud noises of the crowd when they are doing shows?
Captive dolphins often work 12-hour days without a break. Whether it is performing for the public or participating in dolphin petting pool encounters, dolphins are forced to participate by conditioning. During performances or petting sessions, their ears are assaulted by blaring music and the noise of people splashing water or slapping the sides of the tank to get their attention. In petting pools and feeding programs, the dolphins' health may be further compromised by people placing items such as sunglasses, cigarettes, stones, coins, food, and metal souvenirs into the mouths of dolphins. All of this takes a heavy toll on dolphins often resulting in stress-related illnesses and even death.
What happens to the dolphins if they decide that they don't want to perform?

Dolphins in captivity are not given the option to end interactions or performances when they would like to. They are trained to perform through ‘operant conditioning'. For many animals this means that satisfaction of hunger is dependent on performing tricks; for others, hunger is deliberately induced so the trainer will be effective. Though a complete food portion is ultimately provided each day, the use of food as a training tool reduces some animals to little more than beggars.

Sometimes dolphins express their frustration through aggression either to people, other dolphins, or by self mutilation. People would not dream of putting their children or themselves in a cage with wolves, lions, or tigers. This natural caution is lost around dolphins. Dolphins (including those born in captivity) are large, powerful predators, perfectly capable of harming humans. Examples of dolphin aggression include pushing people into deeper water, biting, and head-jerking. Injury reports document broken bones, skin abrasions and other injuries.

The public is taken in by the dolphin's ‘smile' and assumes they are gentle, willing playmates. But make no mistake – these are wild animals and the smile is simply an anatomical quirk; it is not a reflection of the dolphin's emotional state.

Are the places where you can swim with dolphins better than the places that make them do tricks?

The places where you can swim with dolphins are in no way better than the places that make them do tricks. Paying customers at swim-with-the-dolphin programs wouldn't be happy being in the water with animals that swim away from them, so encounter programs train their dolphins to interact with people. This forced proximity to humans can be very overwhelming to dolphins and, over time, may contribute to a variety of stress-related illnesses.

Swimming with wild dolphins does not offer a much better alternative to swimming with dolphins in captivity. It can be as bad since it is difficult to ensure that wild swims are not an intrusive or stressful experience for the dolphins. In some locations dolphins are repeatedly disturbed by boatloads of swimmers and have been recorded leaving their usual home ranges for quieter areas. The disruption to feeding, resting, nursing, and other natural behaviors, is likely to have a detrimental and maybe even a permanent impact on the health and wellbeing of individual dolphins and populations. Other concerns include the safety of dolphins and swimmers, injury to dolphins by boat propellers and the risk of dolphins becoming aggressive or food-dependent on humans.

The best way to commune with dolphins is from the deck of a dolphin watch operation that follows a responsible code of conduct or, better yet, from shore, where you can be sure that you're not harming them and they can't harm you.   

What is the required amount of space for a captive dolphin to be happy? How big are the tanks that they live in when they are not doing shows?

Any tank or enclosure is too small for a dolphin. According to US regulations, dolphin pens only need to be 24 x 24 feet and only six feet deep. With the current US standards, a dolphin would have to circle its pen more than 1,700 times everyday to simulate its natural swimming range in the wild! In warm weather such shallow water heats quickly. This can be extremely uncomfortable, and often deadly, for dolphins unable to escape to deeper, cooler waters. Not only is there no relief from the heat, but also the dolphin's sensitive skin can be exposed to the sun's scorching rays, causing blisters and sores. Also, in cement pools, chlorine is added to keep bacteria levels safe for humans. The levels of chlorine used, wreak havoc on a dolphin's skin and eyes, sometimes even rendering them completely blind.

Just because standards exist, doesn't mean that they're appropriate, well enforced, or they ensure an acceptable quality of life for the dolphins. No facility can adequately simulate the vast ocean or provide for a dolphin's needs. No captive program – no matter how large, well regulated, well funded, or well intentioned – can make a case for meeting a dolphin's complex behavioral needs and no standard set by a government can be called sufficient.

How do they teach the dolphins to perform tricks?

Captive dolphin programs often train dolphins to perform tricks that people equate with human responses and emotions. Movement of the pectoral flippers is taken to mean that the dolphins are waving a greeting. Vocalizing seems to indicate that the animals are “speaking” to the crowd. Or, the dolphins swim directly up to tourists entering the water, apparently signaling their enthusiasm to interact. In reality, these are highly unnatural behaviors that hold no meaning for the animal and offer no insight into their state of mind.

Dolphins are trained to perform these tricks through ‘operant conditioning'. For many animals this means that satisfaction of hunger is dependent on performing tricks; for others, hunger is deliberately induced so the trainer will be effective. Though a complete food portion is ultimately provided each day, the use of food as a training tool reduces some animals to little more than beggars. This is particularly obvious when a trainer enters the holding area, carrying a bucket of fish. The dolphin's eyes will remain fixed on the bucket, not on the trainer. It is easy to overlook this detail, as most audiences are watching and listening to the trainer. But in observing the dolphin's body language, it is apparent that food is the motivator, not affection for the trainer, playfulness or an affinity for the crowd.

Are dolphins happy and not lonely as long as they are with other dolphins?
Dolphins in captivity, forced to live with others of their species, do not always get along with their pool-mates. The dolphin pod is a very complex social unit. Dolphins in a pod share close social bonds with each other. To force a change in the composition of the pod may have dire implications for the hierarchy and structure. Simply providing them the company of other individuals of their species is no assurance that they will be happy and will not experience loneliness. Just like humans, dolphins are intelligent, thinking, feeling individuals.
How can you tell which dolphinaria are good and which are bad?
No captive facility, no matter how much space it provides, how well intentioned it is, or how hard it tries, is able to provide for the complex behavioral and physical needs of dolphins. Certainly there are captive facilities that put more resources into their programs. But, unequivocally, there is no way to do captivity “well”. All facilities from the largest, state-of-the-art facility to the crudest program all compromise dolphin welfare to an unacceptable degree.
Is it ok to go to dolphinaria just to see the animals but not to watch them perform tricks?
Every time someone buys a ticket to a dolphin show or even to a facility or theme park that holds captive dolphins, they are contributing to the suffering of these remarkable creatures. Like any other business, the dolphin captivity industry is based on supply and demand and the captivity industry exists to make money and to fulfill the demand for interactive experiences with dolphins. As long as people are willing to buy tickets to watch dolphins (whether to perform tricks or to just view them through a glass wall), dolphins will be kept in captivity and trained to perform for audiences. The key to putting a stop to the exploitation of dolphins is the choices one can make as a consumer. In other words, if the public understood the truth behind the captive dolphin industry they wouldn't buy a ticket.
Do dolphinaria participate in conservation and research the same way zoos do? How many of the animals get released back into the wild?

Media attention on controversial captures, unnecessary deaths, and inhumane transportation of dolphins is having an impact upon the public's perception of dolphin theme parks. Recent opinion polls reveal that most people now think the captivity of marine mammals is justified only when there are measurable educational or scientific benefits. In order to validate their existence, dolphin theme parks disguise their entertainment focus as being ‘educational'. In reality, viewing captive animals gives the public a false picture of the animals' life and provides no educational value. Worse yet, it desensitizes people to captivity's inherent cruelties.

Many captive facilities also claim to focus on conserving the species. In fact, less than 5-10% of captive facilities are involved in dolphin conservation programs to reintroduce captive-bred animals into the wild. The amount spent on these programs is a mere fraction of the income generated by these facilities. Facilities may promote themselves as stranding and research centers, but most stranded marine mammals die after they are rescued; few survive rehabilitation to be released in the wild; many releases are not monitored for success; and some of those suitable for release are retained for public display. Most facilities' research is focused on improving captive care and is unrelated to conservation in the wild.

What happens to old dolphins?

Dolphins in captivity do not retire after a certain age or after a certain number of years of performing for the public. In those facilities that have adequate resources, dolphins that fall ill or show signs of distress are isolated while veterinarians identify and treat the problem. Some dolphins respond to treatment and recover only to be forced to perform again. Others succumb to their illness.

Nobody really knows the exact average lifespan of captive dolphins and records of births and deaths maintained by the industry are only made available to the public on a voluntary basis. In the case of wild-caught dolphins, there is no accurate method to tell the age of the animal and therefore the age at the time of death can only be estimated or remains unknown.

There has been much debate about the longevity of captive dolphins compared with that of dolphins in the wild. Regardless of whether it can yet be scientifically determined that life spans differ between captive and wild animals, it is a fact that seemingly healthy and normal captive cetaceans die at relatively early ages on a regular basis, usually with little or no warning and due to causes very different from their wild counterparts. In short, very few captive dolphins live to an old age and even if they do, they perform until they are unable to. 

What about special-needs, disabled or ill children? Don't they experience therapeutic benefits by swimming with dolphins?
Dolphins are becoming an increasingly popular choice of animal-assisted therapy for psychological problems and developmental disabilities. We can certainly understand a person going to any length possible to help an ill or disabled loved one. However, there is no compelling scientific evidence that Dolphin Assisted Therapy is a legitimate therapy or that it offers any more than fleeting improvements for special-needs children. In fact, some experts suggest that the inability to provide this kind of stimulus on a consistent basis can actually have a negative effect. The only guaranteed result is that the desperate parents of special-needs children end up paying large sums of money for short periods of time in the water with dolphins.
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(c) Kristian Sekulic